But anyway, this lab grew to become the 10th largest non-academic AI lab of a European company, that was a European multinational. So at a center here in Cupertino and in Europe. And then I started writing books about this assault. Today that AI is popular again, I can claim that I wrote my first book on AI 34 or 33 years ago. So of course, it was a totally different kind of AI. And today, AI has changed dramatically, so that there is again a lot of interest, a lot of hype. So my book is entitled “Intelligence is not Artificial,” which already gives away my take on some of the hype.
Shawn Flynn 02:40
So then what would you consider, or could you explain to us, artificial intelligence?
Piero Scaruffi 02:45
That’s the problem whenever we have discussions, whether it’s business or philosophy, that is the problem. What is your definition of AI? So you hear people talking about all sorts of things. And the very few of those things are what people in my generation considered as AI.
Piero Scaruffi 03:01
So what do people mostly talk about? So that’s my opinion, two main kinds of AI that people talk about. One doesn’t exist, I call it the Hollywood AI. Okay, the things you see in Hollywood movies that doesn’t exist, and in my opinion will not exist any time soon.
So all the fear about the machines taking over or whatever, or all the hopes about immortality coming from machines, are wildly exaggerated, in my opinion. And the other kinds of AI that people talk about a lot is actually not AI, because it is real, but is so trivial. It is just automation. I call it the Chinese AI, because I spend a lot of time in China. And in China, they’re calling pretty much everything AI, everything that automates some task, they call it AI. A classic example is robots. There are millions of robots in the world. But most of the robots are just arms that perform one function, always the same function over and over and over. Their value is that they can work 24 hours a day, and they don’t get sick, but they’re not intelligent, okay? Well, I mean, some people call AI all of automation. So these two things, in my opinion, are most of what people talk about.
Piero Scaruffi 04:14
Now, the automation, I think we should just call it automation. And this way, we don’t get into arguments that are driven by the word intelligence, okay? We’re just, you know, using automation, as we did, since the invention of the steam engine. Even before that, the clock was invented 1000 years ago. It is a form of automation. In fact, the clock can do something that none of us can do, even Einstein cannot do, you know? It tells you how many minutes have been speaking. So that’s automation. And then artificial intelligence, that is Hollywood AI is AI. I mean, that’s what the scientists, the AI scientists are trying to do. Machines that can understand what I’m saying, the machines that can drive cars and fly planes and so and so. The real AI that is out there now is really in-between, and unfortunately, it’s very limited. It’s very far from being the Hollywood AI.
Piero Scaruffi 05:06
Of course, at a selfish level, a lot of people like me, who weathered the growth in AI, are very happy that there’s so much talk going from the Hollywood AI, all the way to the China AI. We have a new career all of a sudden. So if you ask 20 people in AI a definition of AI, they will give you 20 different definitions. The reason is very simple. Define intelligence, you ask 20 psychologists, they will give you 20 different definitions of intelligence. So it’s really hard to pinpoint what AI is. And even harder to pinpoint what is in reality. Even worse, the AI that I was doing in the 80s is only vaguely related to the AI that they’re doing now.
Shawn Flynn 05:47
Who do you think will lead the AI race in the coming years? Will it be the US? Or do you think it’ll be China? Or do you think they will just complement each other?
Piero Scaruffi 05:57
So China is number one in applying research, okay? I always joke, and not so much a joke. I’ve written lengthy articles on my website that China off-sourced research to the West. We off-source shoe manufacturing to China, they off-source their research to us. They wait for us to do all the research, take all the risk experiment, and so on. Then when something works, they take it, they apply it. And they apply to a huge base. I mean, think of what Alibaba and WeChat have done to China. These are applications that spread like wildfire. And if you come back in just 10 years, China hardly had computer. I mean, they basically skipped the mainframe, the mini-computer, the personal computer. They just have, you know, phone. So they’re very good at applying ideas. And that is also true in AI. So if you’re talking about practical applications of AI, I think China is already winning. They took for example, speech recognition, and they made the devices you can buy. They are expensive by Chinese standards but you can buy them, they work offline, and they do automatic translation. Here, we are still in the age of online translation, very good. But you have to be on Wifi or have a cell phone signal, whatever.
The same for robots. I mean, in China, it’s not… You don’t have to be in a five-star hotel. There are already robots that will take you to your hotel room. Now how intelligent is that? It’s actually not very intelligent, you know? The robot always follows the same path. It keeps saying, unfortunately, in Chinese, “Get out of my way.” It has a direct communication with the elevator. So you can call the elevator, he knows which floor your room is so you can program the elevator to go there. Then it follows the route to your room, and in some cases, even opens the room. Some of them carry your luggage and so on. In this kind of things, China is always better. I mean, China will always win, in my opinion, they’re just so good at applying a new idea to very practical chores, and the same good or bad, the same in the face recognition, right? I mean, they deployed on a vast scale, security cameras that recognize faces. Millions of people have been already archived, their face has been archived that they can be recognized in the crowd. So for that kind of AI, for the application there, I think China has already won.
Piero Scaruffi 08:17
For the real research, for the things that really interest me, you know, the things academia is working on, I don’t know, self-supervised learning, which is a new kind of machine learning. And it’s more natural, in my opinion, and it could really break through, then you read the papers that are ours, ours meaning West. Mostly US, some in Europe, Israel, and so on. It is too rare to see a Chinese paper that really has a novel idea. By the way, the Chinese published more papers than the United States now there. But their papers, typically, what do they do? Well, you guys invented this new type of neural network, we just improved it. And look, we achieved the highest score ever in accuracy of recognizing something, okay? That’s where the Chinese win. The Chinese are winning that also, because, by the way, they graduate six million STEM students a year— science, technology, engineering, math.
And as anybody in academia knows, Chinese students tend to be the best. So it’s not only six million, but six million very bright students, and are paid relatively low salaries in China. Very intelligent, very educated labor force to throw on applying these ideas to practical things. So you know, the short answer is China is winning, but I wanted to spend a little time to emphasize that in terms of research, they are way behind. And I was interviewed in China, the interviewer got offended when I said they are 20 years behind. That, “What 20 years behind? I mean, we have everything.”
But I was talking about research. And not only software, by the way, but also in hardware. And all this trade war is actually showing how weak they are in basic research, they still buy from us, their fundamental pieces of hardware for their smartphones, their Android operating system. So in terms of research, they’re behind. But in terms of application, I think they already won, and they will keep leading, I think, for a long time. There’s nothing… I don’t see anybody in the West that has the same kind of very practical approach to application of new ideas.
Shawn Flynn 10:24
How far away are we from having autonomous cars everywhere in the US?
Piero Scaruffi 10:29
The vast majority of automation, forget the term AI. Realize, first of all, on us humans structuring the environment for the machines. If you visit the Amazon factory in Arizona, the fully automated factory, there are robots doing everything, but you can’t have people crossing the floor, and you certainly can’t have children playing around, you can’t have a cat walking around. So the environment is being structured in such a way that that factory is so automated, you’ll see robots moving back and forth, communicating with each other, and so on. The self-driving car, first of all, relies on somebody having structured the road, okay? The self-driving car looks for solid white lines, looks for signs. Somebody has to put these things. Now, the more you structure the road, the easier it is to have a self-driving car.
In fact, we have self-driving vehicles, they’re called trains, okay? Any subway in the world today, I think, is fully robotic. So the question is really, what do we have to do? How do we have to structure the environment so that a self-driving car can operate and operate safely? So that’s the big question. And I think that will require a lot of effort. If we don’t do that, if you are asking me with the current roads right now, as it is, with the current traffic, with the children possibly crossing the street, you know, an unpredictable moment, with FedEx trucks stopping where they shouldn’t stop and blocking traffic, and so on and so on. I don’t think that technology is anywhere near and that’s why you don’t have the car.
Sergey Brin, a few years ago, maybe 2013, predicted by 2017 that there will be commercially available self-driving cars, implying, you know, not just one or two but tens of thousands. Well, it’s not there, it’s not going to be there. And I suspect the investment in fully autonomous vehicles is shrinking, not increasing because they realized how difficult it is, and there lies also the liabilities. Three people died, or at least three people died. I don’t know if we heard all of them. It’s all because that this thing is not reliable, is not right…
Piero Scaruffi 12:41
See, AI scientists are also guilty sometimes because they published the paper saying this machine can recognize your wife more with a lower error rate that you yourself can. Now, this is true in specific circumstances, but the machine could misthink that it’s not your wife, it is a tree, which you will never do. It’s not a tree. I mean, it’s in the house, there are no trees in houses, and the same for many other. Machines can be very accurate in recognizing apples. But when they make a mistake, they confuse the apple with something that we wouldn’t do. So that’s the thing, machines don’t have common sense. Period. Now, no matter how smart a person is, you want that person to have common sense before you can trust the person. And actually, in any driving test, it is about common sense. More than it is about observing the rules. The way you turn right has to feel natural, has to feel safe. How do you describe that in formulas? It depends on the circumstances. I mean, are there two children on the sidewalk?
Well, then your right turn is totally different from the case in which there are two adults. There is an infinite number of these rules. So if we don’t structure the environment, the fully autonomous car is not coming any time soon. What you are going to have is the things that improve your safety when you drive. I mean, the simplest example is the camera, right? It shows you what’s going on behind you. And you can have a lot of it, if you spend money. You can have a lot more sensors around the camera that will give you useful information. If you want to have fully autonomous cars, then you have to restructure the environment. It implies redesigning the streets, and probably deploying a lot of transmitters. There are a lot of beacons that will send signals to the cars. Now, if you completely remove a human being… So one day, I was having this discussion with a former Google engineer. At one point, he got upset and he said, “Yes, but that’s only because we have all these stupid human beings driving cars.” He was 100% right. If you remove the human beings, of course it works. You have only self-driving cars on the road, you have no pedestrians, you have no children. Ideally, no dogs, no cats. Well, then the self-driving car is absolutely safe. Just like a train is safe. We are reinventing the train, in a sense.
Shawn Flynn 14:58
What do you think is the next big thing from Silicon Valley? So a few years ago, it was AR, VR. Then, it was artificial intelligence. Then most recently, most people would say blockchain, what do you think is next?
Piero Scaruffi 15:12
Oh, I think and hope that it is biotech and even the term of biotech is becoming too generic. And this you have gene editing, it is the one that is very publicized. And on that one, I have some reservations. Last year, there was an in paper that sort of show that you have to be careful. But certainly, obviously, the potential of gene editing is of course, way, way more than artificial intelligence. And then in biotech, you have a liquid biopsy. The idea that someday a drop of blood will tell people if you have cancer or not. That will save millions of lives. And then you have this CAR T-cells, the immune system actually has cells to fight cancer called T-cells. So do super heroes, you know, Marvel style cells that fight cancer. If you get cancer, it means they didn’t do that job. Why? Well, either the cancer was too strong, or you don’t have enough cells, so you can manufacture them.
And then there are crazy things… I don’t know if you’ve heard of IVG, in vitro gametogenesis, a very complicated Latin name. And this was invented, I think, in 2015. A Japanese scientist proved it on mice. They can take a skin cell and turn it either into a sperm cell or an egg female, egg cell, which means think of a couple who cannot have children, they take one cell, skin cell from the woman, one skin cell from the men, they create the embryo in vitro, and then you have babies. Even better, you can take two skin cells from the same woman and make an embryo. So this has been done on mice. So biotech, the potential is incredible. And unlike AI, the hype is real. It’s not just hype. So I think biotech, the potential is enormous. And that’s the place if I were Elon Musk, or Bill Gates and so on, I would be worried about biotech, not about AI.
Shawn Flynn 17:04
In 2016, you wrote the book, “Humankind 2.0.” *inaudible* found was the most influential book in China. You were also named the tech advisor for Guangzhou. Can you tell us about that experience?
Piero Scaruffi 17:19
So the book is written in Chinese and I cannot write a single letter, a single character in Chinese. So obviously it was written by somebody else was written by Jinxia Niu. I had the ideas, I had ideas on where the technologies are going. The book became obsolete very quickly, which means we’re right about most of those things. They did happen. That’s the problem with technology. If your predictions are right, then they will sound off very quickly. But it was just a panoramic on the research has been done. Of course, it was very much focused on the Bay Area, because that’s where we live. So we interviewed a lot of scientists here, startups, and we just gave a panoramic of where it was going. It was not my first book published in China. The first book published in China was a translation of my “A History of Silicon Valley.” That’s the book that really made me quote-unquote famous in China.
Shawn Flynn 18:08
And then you also have a new book coming out on social responsibility for tech companies. Could you please tell our listeners a little bit more about that book and what you hope to accomplish?
Piero Scaruffi 18:18
So that it’s not only for companies. It’s really everybody. So the book is titled, again, it’s in Chinese. Again, it was written by Jinxia Niu. And this time, she did a lot of the work. It is called “Peace Technology.” For the English title it is called Peace Tech. Then the Chinese title, it is actually “Peace and Technology.” When we finished “Humankind 2.0,” and it was a very big project, Jinxia asked me, “Okay, there’s all this great technology coming. But what does it do for the people of the village, the mountain village, where I come from?” She’s from a very poor village in China. And that was a very good question. So then, we had the motivation to look into more, quote-unquote, humanitarian uses of technology. We became friends with a Peace Innovation Lab at Stanford that most people don’t know, they should know. And we learn all this fascinating, interdisciplinary discipline, not a branch or a discipline, really very interdisciplinary. That is about Peace Technology. There’s academic definition of peace and there’s a way to measure peace. You and somebody was walking in the parking lot right now are at peace, you’re not fighting each other. But that peace is zero. You and me right now are at peace, and we’re doing something together.
So you can measure this, you can say, there’s more peace between us, than between you and that stranger. And if we cooperate, and we collaborate, we build something together, especially we build wealth that benefits everybody, then that measure of peace goes up and up and up. So the question is, what kind of technologies can help improve peace? Now, this does not help in Syria, right? It does not help stop conflicts that already happened. But it could help create societies where conflict is less likely. So that’s what the book is about, you know, all the people are working around this theme. And it was fascinating. The group at Stanford is doing truly the foundations. So you talk to them, and you get all the background on the concept that I told you one minute. I mean, there’s a lot more behind it. But then we found groups, ranging from psychologists, biologists, and of course, computer scientists, people in the sharing economy, Airbnb, Uber, they were interested in the concept of trust. How do you measure trust?
Well, that’s a form of peace, and you take an Uber ride, that’s not trivial. You have to trust the stranger and he has to trust you, whether on the physical level and the financial level, right? So there’s a lot of people studying this. Of course, biologists, they’ve been studying cooperation, you know, for decades, among animals, among humans. We learned that DARPA, the Defense Agency, had funded the project for soldiers to improve their connection with the people, I think, of Afghanistan, any one of the area where they were. DARPA realized it’s a big problem, if there is hate towards our soldiers, that’s a bad way to start, right? So there was a multi-year project involving SRI, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, to use virtual reality, AI, many other things. I learned a bit because there was a fascinating paper written by Mohamed Amer at SRI to measure and improve the relationship between, you know, a soldier and a civilian in these situations.
Piero Scaruffi 21:37
I go to China all the time, China now claims to have more than 400 Smart Cities. I get worried when I hear this, what is a Smart City? Is it a place where you just have an algorithm that direct traffic? I mean, we’re talking only about, I mean, is a city only about buildings and cars and traffic lights? What about the human beings who live in the city? So I get very worried when I hear that somebody is planning a Smart City. China’s number one, that’s why I mentioned China, but US, Europe, everybody’s planning Smart Cities. But if you look inside, at best, they give you a park? What do you do for people, that park? You know, or a place where you can watch old movies? Is that all we can do in a Smart City? Is that artificial smart?
So this Peace Technology could also be used to think how can we improve the connection between the people, their cooperation, their collaboration, all these terms of actual academic meanings, okay? Then, the scientists are trying to find ways to measure this and to improve this. And in the age of big data, I think that’s how you should use data. You know, it’s scary that those big data are in the hands of government agencies. They want to find out what you are doing. Or in the hands of corporations, they want to sell you things you don’t need. And it would be nice if this big data were used to understand what really makes people feel that they’re living a meaningful life and a meaningful society.
Shawn Flynn 23:02
And a book that you also wrote in the past, “A History of Silicon Valley,” you’ve mentioned it a little bit earlier, in this book, what advice do you have for cities or countries, who are trying to mimic what is here in the Silicon Valley ecosystem?
Piero Scaruffi 23:16
If you read my “A History of Silicon Valley,” which is, by the way, 600 pages. It’s not, it’s not just about the stars, it’s really about how this thing developed. If you read the book, you will realize that I spent a lot of time studying society. Why? Well, because I’m from Europe. So when you tell me Silicon Valley has these and these and these and these, I can easily pinpoint places in Europe that had the same things. And some of them have it ten times better. You know, I mean, like, it’s ridiculous to say, Silicon Valley at Stanford, Stanford was a small university in the 50s. And a lot of professors didn’t want to come to Stanford. They want to go into that forsaken Bay Area, whatever it is, for a long time, that was the truth. And it was even difficult to move engineers to California. It was easy to move all people to Los Angeles. So when people mentioned that things that are special about Silicon Valley, and I don’t believe most of them, most of them, you know, they existed somewhere else.
And by the way, the money was in New York and London. The big electronic companies were on the East Coast and Western Europe. The Nobel Prize winners… I mean, when did California win the first Nobel Prize? I don’t know. But a long time ago, it took a while for California to start winning Nobel Prizes, the same way that France or Germany wins them. And the big universitie, come on? Princeton, MIT, Harvard, Pennsylvania, The Moore School, these are the places where computers were born and improved. Columbia University, New York, you know, Yale, they were on the East Coast. And in Europe, Oxford, Cambridge, the first computer was designed and built in Cambridge.
Piero Scaruffi 24:50
So why Silicon Valley? Now let’s forget technology for a second. Let’s go back to the 40s, 50s. And ask what was special about the Bay Area? What was really special about the Bay Area? Of course, not technology. I mean, the 50s, probably Boston has 90% of the software engineers of the United States. So what was special about the Bay Area in the 50s? I think if you lived in the 50s and you ask anybody in New York or Boston, what is special about the Bay Area? They would have the answer. It was obvious, crazy artists, crazy musicians, crazy people. And in the 60s, even crazier, in the 70s, still crazy people. So what was really special about… I’m simplifying, of course, that craziness needs to be qualified. But that was what’s special. It was society that was so different, it was so different. And that technology came. It came by accident because of the World War II, because of the Cold War.
And when technology came, this crazy society did something crazy with the technology. So I think if you studied their societies, it’s not so difficult to believe that here, everything was different. My computers were big on the East Coast, and they were for banks and government. And here somebody, zero spark, looked at the computer as big as the old building and said, “I want to put a computer on the desk.” Initially, it was for children, school children. And then somebody there decided, “I want to have a distant conference call with my co-workers.” So it’s, and by the way, when I came here in the 80s, we were using the Unix operating system. It was the original Facebook, in a sense. It was the place that has interest groups so you could change information, meet friends, exchanged files. Unix operating system was invented by AT&T, the biggest corporation in the world. It was never meant to be used by kids to talk about rock music. So this is a place where stupid ideas are great ideas. Some other people do stupid things with technology and invent the iPhone. So that’s the thing that is special about Silicon Valley. It is their society.
Piero Scaruffi 26:57
So when people Shenzen, China, or Australia, to name two places where I was invited to talk about this, asked me, “How can we replicate Silicon Valley?” I roll my eyes, and I think, “Hopeless. You have just different societies. And there’s nothing wrong with your society. But it’s just a different society, you will not get to Silicon Valley. You will not adjust a different way of thinking.” What you can do, you can learn things from Silicon Valley. Say for example, me, I’m an immigrant, there are so many immigrants. I mean, you go to a party. And sometimes, if you were born and raised in the United States, you’re a minority. If you were born and raised in the Bay Area, you are definitely minority. I want to see a party where the majority were born here are raised in the Bay Area. So one thing you can learn is that it is a place where immigrants are an asset, not a liability. Immigrants are an asset. They come with ideas with a different mindset, and they are productive minds, you can learn the value of meritocracy.
You know, in many countries, both in Asia and in Europe, their CEO of a company is usually the son, or the daughter, or nephew. Here, name one company that is led by the son or by the nephew of the founder of a previous CEO. It is more of a meritocracy. And you learn the value of diversity, you know, not only because we go to work in t-shirts and shorts. Sometimes I’m not even in a t-shirt. But because we value to respect… Unfortunately, now we have a bad name for that. But you know, gender is more respected, at least pretend… I don’t know how often we applied… but there’s more respect for different gender. And the gay community in San Francisco is always been a major contributor to the cultural life of this place. Ethnic groups, we have absolute tolerance. If you have an accent like me, you will never correct it. Because nobody looks down on you because you have an accent. There are things they can learn from us.
Shawn Flynn 28:50
What do you know about Silicon Valley that people from the outside just don’t understand?
Piero Scaruffi 28:55
Actually, I was pleased, a couple of months ago, I was at a party. And I met this woman from New York who works for a venture capitalist. And I asked her, “So what was your impact? You know, moving, what was the cultural shock, moving from New York and to this place?” And she said, “Huge, huge shock. People just think different here.” So no matter how many times you came for a business trip, or a meeting, how many friends you have here, until you start working here, you don’t realize the spirit. That the spirit is so different. I think it’s changing in the big corporations. I mean, this is new, right? I mean, if you go back 20 years, we didn’t have big corporations. HP was probably the biggest and hi-tech. Now we have Google, which is number one in its field, Facebook is number one in its field, Intel is probably still number one in its field, Oracle is number one in its field. And the list goes on and on: Netflix, Airbnb, Uber, Tesla. It’s even difficult to remember all the number ones here. So the software engineer and this company… I don’t know if it still has the spirit. But the moment you go up to the founders, and to the investors, I think it’s a different way of thinking. And again, it comes from the society.
Piero Scaruffi 30:05
So it’s really hard for somebody outside to just read the book, and figure it out. Especially, see one reason we wrote the book, it wasn’t just me, it was also my friend, Arun Rao. He had the idea, actually, I thought it was a stupid idea. Then he convinced me.
One of the reasons we wrote the book was we are so dissatisfied with the books that existed. And later we got dissatisfied with the movies and TV series. I mean, the books especially, they tend to talk only about the people who made millions of dollars. Silicon Valley is about all the people who didn’t, all the people who failed. It’s about zero spark coming out with this great idea, or the computer on the desk for children. And then after few iterations, it becomes the Macintosh at Apple. But the ideas are very important. And the history is much more complicated. Some people start from the microprocessor. Microprocessor is an idea that came from a Japanese guy and was implemented by an Italian guy, talk about immigrants. And of course, somebody at Intel was in charge. And he was the one who made the prototype. But it wasn’t the typical corporate, or the way you think of it. Imagine IBM, General Electric, they could have made, invented a microprocessor ten years earlier, why they didn’t? So they were thinking different, they’re different people. So I think there’s a lot of this really hard to express in words. I remember Arun spent some time investigating the failures of Silicon Valley, somebody should write a book just about the failures. And some of the failures, oh what was the first Newton, there has been so many projects that failed. But those projects are the history of Silicon Valley. And without them, Silicon Valley would be very different.
Shawn Flynn 31:42
So to pair with that, is there anything else that you want our listeners to know about? Anything you’re working on or contact information if they want to get a hold of you or find out more about what you’re working on?
Piero Scaruffi 31:54
Well, I have a very messy website www.scaruffi.com. Last year, I think the Telegraph, a British newspaper, said that it’s the oldest still-active website in the world. I’m not sure it is something to be proud of. So you find everything I do there. One thing I would like to mention maybe that see sometimes, hope has become more important than the real-life in this place. I started the interdisciplinary events about 10 years ago, called the LASERS, Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous. And guess what? They spread to more than 30 cities of the world. And last year, we had a fifth edition of a festival that we called The L.A.S.T. Festival: Life, Art, Science, Technology. The L.A.S.T. Festival. So these are non-profit events, they are just interdisciplinary, we put together scientists, artists, historians. Just thinkers, just people who do interesting things. I think that’s the real spirit of Silicon Valley, actually. If you’re an interesting person, you are an interesting person, whether you make a million dollars or not, that’s largely an accident. A lot of it depends on luck or the people you meet. But being an interesting person is important. I started these events just to put together interesting people. They are open to the public here in the Bay Area, to come to one
Shawn Flynn 33:12
Right. We will have all those links and the information in the show notes. But with that, Piero, I’d like to thank you for the time here today on Silicon Valley and I look forward to in the future. We would definitely like to invite you back on, especially after your next book comes out.
Piero Scaruffi 33:26
Thank you. You have very good questions.
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